That Pinch of Incense

by | Sep 25, 2020 | Bible Study, Culture, Current Events | 1 comment

You may have heard that, in the years when the New Testament was being written, and beyond, one of the issues Christians faced was the requirement, by the government of Rome, to offer a pinch of incense on an altar dedicated to the deity of the Roman emperor. From one way of looking at it, this was a way to say “I acknowledge the emperor is a god,” but from another way of looking at it, it was a way to say, “I am willing to acknowledge the legal authority of the government.” There was a third thing that act meant culturally, and it was something more like, “I will say publicly the emperor is a god, because I care about national prosperity and security, and I think this act is a way to secure the favor of whatever gods there are, and ensure the good fortune of our empire.” You can see at once what a dilemma this presented to the first Christians. Of course, they were willing to acknowledge the legal authority of the Roman government, and the emperor as the head of that government, and they wanted to do their civic part to work for the prosperity and security of their neighbors. However, they could not say the emperor was a god, or offer any kind of worship to him, however small it may be. The difficult thing was that, when they refused to call Caesar a god, they were accused of jeopardizing national security, and of hating their neighbors–because, can’t you love people enough to just offer a pinch of incense? It is a situation like this that Jesus seems to be referring to in the letter to the church in Smyrna, in Revelation chapter 2:

I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich)…
Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.
Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days.

In his commentary on the book of Revelation, James Allen gives some fascinating historical background to the situation of the church in Smyrna at that time, a situation which seems to have a lot to say to many Christians around the world in 2020…

Beyond the nominal adherence to the usual deities of paganism, the city subscribed enthusiastically to the cult of Emperor worship. As early as 196 BC an altar had been erected to Dea Roma. This goddess was the deification of the spirit of Rome. Over a century later an altar was built to Tiberius Caesar. As [F.A.] Tatford points out, “The worship of the Emperor was compulsory. Each year a Roman citizen had to burn a pinch of incense on the alter and to acknowledge publicly that Caesar was supreme Lord”.

Under Domitian (81-96 AD) in the time of this letter, emperor worship was compulsory for every Roman citizen. The burning of the pinch of incense was rewarded by a certificate which had to be renewed annually. Failure to produce a certificate meant being branded as Christian and this opened the way, if the magistrates so decided, for the death penalty on the ground of treason.

Admittedly the burning of the incense was more an act of political loyalty than a religious observance, since the citizen was the free to worship whatever other god or gods he chose. Nevertheless no believer loyal to Christ could do this (see Luke 14:26). Many, like Polycarp, perished at the stake or were torn apart by the beasts in the arena because they refused this test of allegiance to Caesar.

I’ve never thought of something as modern-sounding as a government-issued certificate being a source of trouble for ancient Christians. But there it is. And as he dictated his letter to this church, Jesus said:

Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.